Why We Need To Recover The Classical Doctrine Of Sin

Why We Need To Recover The Classical Doctrine Of Sin November 19, 2014

So, as y’all know, I’ve been thinking about penal substitutionary atonement lately. While I do think that it’s very hard for the doctrine to not open itself up to some of the most popular criticisms, e.g. it turns God into a cosmic child abuser, etc., the main focus of my critique, the one which I think is not only fatal, but most important, is the doctrine of sin and evil as having absolutely no existence, but as rather being the lack of some good, just as darkness is merely the absence of light.

This doctrine is universally (as far as I know) propounded by the Fathers, East and West (Origen, Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, Chrysostom, Pseudo-Dionysius…) as well as the Scholastics (Aquinas, Bonaventure, Eckhart), and so I won’t take the time here to even argue for the doctrine, but rather argue why I think it’s essential to recover it these days (beyond the fact that it’s true, which is, of course, more than reason enough).

Response to post-modernity

The contemporary world has a very hard time talking about sin. The word has become radioactive, or else meaningless, as Francis Spufford found out. If you’ll let me indulge in a moment of outrageous caricature, we have the choice between traditionalists warning of a wrathful, vindictive and legalistic God, and progressives who want to bury sin under a avalanche of glucose and cheap grace. By contrast, in many of the Patristic accounts, the classical doctrine of sin is usually tied with what I find to be a very helpful (and very Biblical) image of Christ as the Divine Healer. Sin, as the lack of the good in us, is a disease of which Christ heals us, by the Spirit, by filling our lacks with grace.

I find this to be a potentially winsome spiritual, pastoral, and apologetic approach. No, God is not sitting there in heaven, frowning, arms crossed and foot tapping, just waiting for you to slip up so he can throw you into Gehenna. At the same time, if you find out you have some dreadful disease, not going to the doctor and just living your life the way you used to is probably not a good idea. Yes, it’s possible for this approach to go overboard if, by overemphasizing the “disease” aspect of the metaphor it ends up robbing people of their agency and/or being overly patronizing. But abusus non tollit usus. Because guess what, yes, if you spend your life practicing lust or greed or covetousness, you will destroy your soul, and not (certainly not primarily) because God is a retributive judge, but because doing those things literally is destroying your soul.

Theodicy and Spiritual Growth

Especially for Augustine, this doctrine of sin is a key element of his theodicy, as it is, more recently, for David Bentley Hart. As you know, theodicy is not a topic I like to dwell on, but I will note that thanks to the New Atheist phenomenon I got to watch countless YouTube videos of Christian apologists being asked about the problem of evil, and I recall absolutely zero of them making an argument along this venerable line.

But the reason I don’t like to dwell on theodicy is also the reason why I think this doctrine is so important, which is that it helps us develop what I will call contempt for sin, which I think ought to be the basic attitude of the Christian.

By this phrase “contempt for sin” I mean something specific. Military citations for valor typically include well-known ritual phrases, such as, in the American tradition, “above and beyond the call of duty.” In French military citations, such as the ones of my ancestors gracing the walls of my family home, one such phrase is “he acted with contempt for danger.” An image I would like to conjure is that of a fireman running into a burning building. The fireman is not just advancing prudently through the fire, which, let’s face it, would already be very courageous. Instead, he runs into the fire. He acts with utter contempt for danger. Yet it is not insanity, or even recklessness.

Sin is nothing at all. Furthermore, the Sovereign Lord of the Universe, in the New Passover, has smashed the powers and principalities and triumphed over them, and in his grace and love has appointed us as kings, priests and prophets. Soon, soon, every tear will be wiped from every eye, every knee will bend, and every mouth will proclaim that Jesus is Lord, and God will be all in all. The faithful, firm, bone-deep knowledge of this reality must be the bedrock of any Christian response to suffering and evil and sin and death, and it is what enables us, in participation in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, to turn evil into good.

The theodicy of the privatio boni is not a neat philosophical trick that allows us to have our cake and eat it, rather, I think, it is the product of spiritual growth, of the true conversion of the heart, by the Spirit, that sees beyond the passing things to the uncreated light that dwells at the heart of all things, that has become so utterly filled with the infinite love that always breaks out, and always destroys evil, but almost as an afterthought of its sheer intensity and power.

Creation, Fall, Redemption

This doctrine is also a key component of the overall drama of Scripture, and salvation history: Creation (of a good Universe), Fall, Redemption (of the Universe, and not just individuals within it). John 1, as is universally acknowledged, is a retelling of the Genesis story. But, among the countless riches of this chapter, is a point that I do not see remarked-upon enough: in John’s telling, it is not God who kicked Adam out of the garden; it is man who kicks God out (“And his own received him not”).

The story of the Fall is that of man putting up a wall, a dam, between Creation and God’s grace that sustains it into existence (existence, which is, after all, only participation in the Being of God, who is the absolute, unconditioned Good)–thereby necessarily creating, well, a lack of the good (we’re still in theodicy, as you can see). Because of God’s literally unimaginable generosity, his grace still overflows enough to sustain the Universe into some semblance of coherence. But most importantly, Christ’s work, succeeding where Adam failed, burst a huge hole in the dam and, equally importantly, enabled us to keep chipping at it until it is finally, completely torn down.

Piety and Social Activism

Another important (and extremely sad and frustrating) divide within Christianity is the divide between what I’ll call “piety” and “social activism”, a focus on personal sin vs. a focus on social sins. It seems to me that the understanding of sin as a lack of the good brings the two together. Because we can see the lack of the good inside us as well as outside us, in society–and with enough introspection, by the light of the Spirit, we can see the link between the two. And the drama of Creation, Fall and Redemption enables us to see that the link is existential: Adam was meant to be viceroy of the Universe, and so his failure wrecked not only himself, but the world, and we are meant to be the Return of the King, to be God’s holy instruments in setting things right. The lack of the good is inside as well as outside–they’re the same thing. And Creation, Fall and Redemption means that we cannot retreat to private piety and simply build an escape hatch for ourselves to Heaven; Creation, Fall and Redemption also means that social activism, without having our hearts of stone cut out and replaced with hearts of flesh, will always be empty; Creation, Fall and Redemption, and the classical doctrine of sin and the power of the Spirit, mean that we can have the contempt for evil of the great King riding into battle from the front, whether we confront the demons that lurk in our heart or that grip God’s good Earth.

I think once our doctrine of sin is thus, so to speak, reset to factory settings, all sorts of pieces start falling together in a much more harmonious and fruitful way.

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  • mochalite

    Wow, I love this. “The lack of the good is inside as well as outside–they’re the same thing.” YES!

    “Creation, Fall and Redemption means that we cannot retreat to private piety and simply build an escape hatch for ourselves to Heaven”. Christian conservatives, take note!

    “Creation, Fall and Redemption also means that social activism, without having our hearts of stone cut out and replaced with hearts of flesh, will always be empty”. Christian liberals, take note!

    “Creation, Fall and Redemption, and the classical doctrine of sin and the power of the Spirit, mean that we can have the contempt for evil of the great King riding into battle from the front, whether we confront the demons that lurk in our heart or that grip God’s good Earth.” This should make us all weep with gratitude. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he was saying this. So the tribal, denominational arguments that separate us need not. God is calling us and, through the Spirit, empowering us, to do all of the above. Yay! and Amen!

  • This is the hardest teaching of the Church for me to understand. If evil has no existence, then the entire religion becomes useless- everything has some good already, there is no need to make it more good than it already is.

    I can’t accept that level of trust. Because I know the devil and evil to be real and have existence, and in the last couple of years, I’ve seen such great wins for evil that it throws the certainty of the ultimate victory of good into great doubt for me.

    • Bob K.

      Theodore,
      This image always helped me. Think of evil or sin as a cavity in a tooth. The tooth is meant to be full and strong, but it is compromised by a hole in it. The “cavity” is just that…an emptiness or “great without.” Something ought to be there and it is not. Sin is a lack of Goodness or Life, or God as a cavity is a lack of tooth or enamel (I’m not a dentist!). We cannot fill it ourselves. We need the “divine dentist” to fill the cavities in our hearts–our being–with his life and grace that only He can offer. (This just got really weird with the introduction of the Divine Dentist!). I hope that helps you, and keep going, bro!

      • I understand that image. I just can’t reconcile it with parents choosing to get divorced, wars of invasion, the genocide of abortion, the lack of courage of euthanasia, or the existence of contraception.

        All of these things, to me, are positive evils with NO redeeming value whatsoever. All cavity, no tooth.

        • Lane

          I disagree. While you list things that are obviously terrible, they aren’t necessarily positive evils; they can still be viewed as lesser goods. For example, choosing the good of sexual pleasure without the additional greater good of openness to life. A country’s leaders desire for a better life by choosing to invade it’s neighbor. The desire for an uncomplicated life or to continue going to college uninturpted over welcoming a new life into the world. None of these desires, by themselves, are evil; they just aren’t the highest good that could have been choosen. Honestly, when I think of people making these terrible chooses I don’t think of them choosing to do an evil thing just because it’s evil; I think of them making terrible choices, i.e. choosing lesser goods over greater ones.

          Augustine would say the human-will always chooses good, “evil” happens when one chooses a lesser good over a greater.

          • Sexual pleasure for reasons other than procreation, objectively, has become an evil in the last 60 years or so, one that creates other evils. Desire for a better life due to envy is also an objective evil, and when it inspires an invasion, is another evil. Desire for an uncomplicated life at the expense of the next generation is evil.

            All of these desires are evil, they aren’t just “lesser goods”, they are objectively evil. I’m familiar with Augustine as well, I just can’t see his point of view on this subject, especially when lesser evils lead to greater evils.

          • Lane

            I agree that all these choices are evil. Hopefully, you don’t think that I’m defending any of them or going easy on them; I’m not.

            “All of these desires are evil”, this is where I disagree. For example, sexual desire in and of itself is not evil. It can be a great good in fact. However, choosing it outside of marriage over chastity is evil, because it is choosing a lesser good and rejecting a greater good. If you mean that the desire to do a lesser good over a greater good is evil, then we agree.

            I still think this is a helpful view of sin. When I have had success in overcoming a particular sin, it is less about rejecting an evil desire then about focusing on a greater one. I have found this perspective very practical.

          • RPlavo .

            A country’s leaders desire for a better life??? what is that? in order to invade it’s neighbor? sounds like twisted logic to me

          • Lane

            Not saying that any of these aren’t profoundly wrong. I was giving examples of how to view these evil events through this understanding of sin. The point is that no one is going around actually wanting to do evil for evil’s sake, they are choosing very small goods over larger goods – in fact that’s how most (all?) people rationalize their choices.

        • The notion of privatio boni includes the idea of evil as a distortion of something good, not merely the absence of something good. So, while a divorce is clearly the absence or lack of a marriage where there should be one, contraception on the other hand is a twisting or distortion of a good that remains in its twisted or distorted form.

          • I can’t see any good in these things at all. They’re distorted to the point of NO LONGER BEING GOOD.

          • The problem with saying that something is no longer good at all in any way is that it denies the fundamental goodness of existence at all. It is to say that being (or existence) is not better than non-being, or even that not-being is better than being, which quickly becomes logically incoherent.

            All that said, I certainly understand the response. At a certain point, there is no way for us to perceive any goodness in a demolished thing or a sinful action. It is only in philosophical abstraction that we can speak of “good” in it. Indeed, a joke in my philosophy classes, for example, in response to “good morning” after a night of heavy drinking, was “It’s good insofar as it has being.”

            However, the practical side is that, when we remind ourselves that good is fundamental and evil is merely privative, we can begin to find points of connection with those who are in danger of falling into evil. If we recognize and acknowledge, for example, the good of independent action and the freedom of not having responsibility for another, we can then proceed to show how this is a lesser good than preserving the life of the child in the womb. This allows us to attack, not the sinner, but the sin, and hopefully prevent someone from sinning, or draw the sinner to repentance.

          • I am in a culture and a city (well, larger metro area, but still) where a lady recently moved specifically to preach that existence was evil. On November 1 she took her own life, quite publicly, so publicly even the Vatican noticed and remarked on the evil of her act.

            Tell me, what good was in it?

          • Her life was good. Her ability to make moral choices was a gift from God.

            The intense and unpredictable suffering that she endured was evil: a distortion and destruction of the health of her body.

            Her ability to recognize that evil – to recognize that the good of her life was under attack – was good. It opened her up to the possibility of uniting her suffering explicitly with that of Christ.

            Her choice to reject suffering and to kill herself distorted the gift of reason and of conscience, and this distortion of her good intellect was evil. Indeed, the reason so many reacted so strongly is because it was so great a good that was being distorted and destroyed: her life, her reason, her moral freedom.

            Does this help clarify? Evil is not a thing existing on its own. It is a state or situation of another already-existing and in-itself-good thing: so, an eye blinded is an evil (or bad) eye; medicine used to commit suicide is evil (or bad) medicine, and the will (which is made to seek the good) which moves toward suicide is an evil (or bad) will – perhaps morally evil (that’s beyond our capacity to judge), but certainly bad in the sense of damaged or incomplete.

            For clarity’s sake, I am not condemning Ms. Maynard. As I said, I’m in no position to judge the state of her soul or the reasons for her actions. I am only trying to parse her public and objectively definable actions in the context of the privatio boni theory of evil.

    • Nicholas Haggin

      Theodore, our religion is not about good simpliciter; it’s about fullness and perfection of good. There is a need to make things more good than they already are. Christ did not say “I came that they might live and be satisfied with the compromised good remaining in fallen things,” but rather “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The Greek word usually translated as “abundantly” in John 10:10 is περισσός, which means something beyond what modern English considers “abundance”: excess and inexhaustibility of life, which I would characterize as perfection.

      Understanding evil as a lack of good thus does not render Christianity useless. The good that is in both people and things by virtue of creation is damaged (see Bob K’s cavity analogy) and it is the work of Christ to restore the perfection of that good, just as it is our work to cooperate with him.

      None of this precludes diabolical activity, either. The devil has chosen emptiness rather than fullness, damage rather than perfection, and actively works toward that end, as plaque acids consume the enamel in your teeth (Bob K, your analogy was better than you thought). Evil may not have existence in itself, but beings who choose evil do; even if we do not explicitly join them, apathy leaves them unopposed to do their worst.

      • ” Evil may not have existence in itself, but beings who choose evil do; even if we do not explicitly join them, apathy leaves them unopposed to do their worst.”

        Thank you for this. People have been quoting this concept of Aquinas at me whenever I oppose the apathetic toleration of evil, on this blog with the new homophiles, but also in the realms of economics, abortion, contraception, and divorce. I keep trying to make this point- that even if say, a feminist never has an abortion herself, support of choice makes her complicit with the culture of death.

    • Re: the ultimate victory of good. Ultimate victory is not, and never has been, for this life. Here, as Galadriel puts it, we fight the long defeat. This is why our hope is in the new heaven and new earth, when the old heaven and old earth have passed away.

      However, the old heaven and old earth, this life, is destined, not to pass away into nothingness, but to pass away into death and resurrection. That is, this world will be transformed and taken into the glory of the Risen Lord. Our acts and works in this life are the raw matter which God will glorify in making the new heaven and new earth.

      Re: good and existence. Part of this teaching is that existence itself is good because it is a gift from God. The devil and the greatest of sinners are good exactly insofar as they exist, but their evil lies in the degree to which they have twisted, distorted, and denied the good of their own existence and the good of the rest of creation. Their impotence, the impotence of evil in the face of good, is that evil cannot create anything of its own, and cannot utterly destroy what is good. It can pervert and ruin it, but it cannot unmake what God has made.

      • Precisely. Evil is absolutely real and sin is far more than a lack of the good. Sin is the acceptance of evil, often, the troweling (think of filling a hole) of evil into ourselves. Sin is cutting ourselves away from God, rejecting Him, rejecting the good. Such rejection is itself evil and, unless we repent, it will lead to greater and greater evils. And there’s so much more than my soul at stake.

        “[I]f you spend your life practicing lust or greed or covetousness, you will destroy your soul,” and you will also harm others, sometimes seriously. And, you will also harm all of creation, sometimes seriously. If we spend our lives loving as Christ loves us, giving ourselves as He gave Himself, repenting (turning away from) sin, Christ will use us to bring enormous healing and greater good into our personal lives, but also into the lives of others, and into all of creation. Turning away from sin and being made like Christ is having life abundantly. It’s having the great good that we are created for.

        Evil is a lack of good but not in the sense of a balloon without enough air. Rather, the balloon has pierced itself and is forcing air out while taking in noxious gas and then spewing that gas, often unknowingly, wherever it floats.

    • The only remedy I can propose here is spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the sacraments, the rosary, eucharistic adoration.

  • Bob K.

    This is a great post! Chesterton once remarked that a hallmark fallacy of Progressive Modernism is that we believed that Wednesday was superior to Tuesday simply because it came later. In other words, it is ingrained in our minds to reject or suspect the teachings and “classical doctrines” of the past simply because something newer and later (and, therefore, presumably better) has taken its place. The “Classic” thinkers so often offer a much more mature and comprehensive answer to the deep mysteries of human life and being. They seemed to be spared from the temptation of reducing human beings down to one element of their being (feelings or intellect or market forces) and rather opted for a grander, more complete anthropology of humanity. Thank you for writing this piece.

    • Yep. The faith is a beauty ever ancient and ever new. Thank you.

    • cajaquarius

      Sometimes we throw out the wisdom of the ancients for novelty but sometimes it is because there may be good reason or because new evidence contradicts it. Good to take a balanced view, I find.

      • Bob K.

        Agreed.

  • Guest

    “Sin, as the lack of good in us”

    Yeah, instead of the Church’s absorption of pagan bullshit, I’ll go with St. Paul,

    “if it had not been for the law, I should have not known sin.”

  • Is it that liberals dismiss sin, or that it looks like something different in their view than what you understand it to be (including that of which you may be complicit)?

  • Gordon –

    Hi Pascal,

    I just discovered your blogs. You are a real thinker, which is refreshing.

    Unfortunately, all your most recent blogs have the comments closed, so I could not post anything on them.

    Your first post that grabbed me was “Is Science in Mortal Danger?” In it you raised many good points, but did not flesh them out enough. I feel this is a very important subject that needs the kinds of answers you are providing, but those answers need to be detailed enough so the average Christian can both grasp them and refute the atheists’ blind faith in Science.

    I desperately wanted to comment on “The ‘Demands of Propriety’ and the hands of the living God.” The opening quote by Kierkegaard is perfect in so many ways. What you then wrote was a good start on a much need conversation within Christianity. This, combined with your interest in Distributism is what I really wanted to engage you on.

    God bless